In November 2011, the Government implemented changes to the workers’ compensation dispute resolution arrangements in Western Australia, establishing the new Conciliation and Arbitration Services and WorkCover WA.
During the 2011 Parliamentary debate on the amendments, the then Minister for Commerce, Hon. Simon O’Brien, gave an undertaking that the new Workers’ Compensation Conciliation and Arbitration Services would be reviewed.
In December 2015 after four years of operation of the new services, WorkCover WA contracted Professor Tania Sourdin, of the Australian Centre for Justice Innovation at Monash University, to undertake an independent review.
Professor Sourdin found the Western Australian Workers’ Compensation and Arbitration Services are generally considered by stakeholders to work well, and, when compared with other workers’ compensation schemes in Australia, provide dispute resolution that is timely, cost effective, fair and accessible.
Professor Sourdin identified some improvement opportunities for the Conciliation and Arbitration Services, and WorkCover WA is already implementing many of these.
The Report makes a number of recommendations regarding access to Conciliation and Arbitration services. In response, WorkCover WA will pilot a cost effective videoconferencing system in the next financial year, providing opportunities for parties outside the metropolitan area to participate in conciliation conferences and arbitration hearings without the need to travel to Perth.
Professor Sourdin’s Report provides some useful recommendations to improve the experiences of those attending the Conciliation Service, particularly in relation to building understanding of the conciliation process on the part of those participating. WorkCover WA already has a range of information available to participants, and is working to further develop its conciliation model.
One of the principal drivers of the 2011 amendments was stakeholder concern about the length of time taken to resolve disputes as well as the costs for parties. A particular focus of Professor Sourdin’s report is then the extent to which the new services are timely and cost effective.
Professor Sourdin reports that the dispute resolution services at WorkCover WA is relatively low cost and is effective in managing, settling and finalising disputes. She also identified that conciliation occurs in a timely manner, with 96 percent of conciliations completed with eight weeks.
In relation to arbitration, Professor Sourdin found while the majority of arbitration matters are dealt with quickly, the time taken can be too long in a small number of the matters which proceed to final determination.
WorkCover WA is undertaking further work to understand how to mitigate this and a number of suggestions are made by Professor Sourdin. Important amongst these is the establishment of performance protocols for arbitrators, supported by a range of other changes (some of which would likely require amendment of the Arbitration Rules or the Workers’ Compensation and Injury Management Act. This also provides an important opportunity to engage with the District Court to explore expectations and requirements in relation to written reasons for decision.
Importantly Professor Sourdin notes that simply increasing the numbers of arbitrators will not necessarily lead to any significant improvements in timeliness, as the reasons for delay are predominantly outside the control of the Arbitration Service itself.
Professor Sourdin’s Report was considered by the WorkCover WA Board in May 2016.